Despite dropping five of its first 13 games this season, the West Virginia men’s basketball team has had a chance to win nearly every single contest it’s played this year.
Closing out opponents down the stretch, however, has proved to be the Mountaineers’ biggest challenge through the bulk of its nonconference schedule.
After blowing a 17-point first-half lead against Virginia Tech in an eventual loss in Blacksburg early in the year, WVU again found itself in prime position late to take down nonconference opponents Purdue and Gonzaga in the Mountaineers’ two games at the WVU Coliseum during the holiday break.
In each of those match-ups, though, the Mountaineers sputtered offensively and defensively down the stretch and eventually fell short of notching a pair of key nonconference victories over quality visiting opponents.
Since those consecutive home losses, West Virginia rebounded with a three-game winning streak, including two consecutive road wins to open Big 12 Conference play undefeated. They join the students in returning to Morgantown for their home conference opener Saturday against Oklahoma State.
“It’s significant,” said sophomore guard Eron Harris. “We want to be the best team in the Big 12, and now we’re 2-0 in the Big 12. We just have to keep the streak going.”
What was perhaps even more gratifying for WVU head coach Bob Huggins and his players was the context of the Mountaineers’ first two conference wins – two late victories earned in contests that could have easily gone either way in the closing minutes, a distinct contrast from those aforementioned nonconference losses earlier in the season.
After the second conference road win, an overtime victory at Texas Tech Monday night, Huggins said ideally his team should have never been in those one-possession situations late during the last two contests, but did so because they simply continue to show complacency at times, taking possessions off in the second half after accruing what they feel is a comfortable lead.
The difference in these two games, however, was the Mountaineers were able to shake off this complacency and finish stronger down the stretch.
“They play hard until the game is over,” said junior guard Juwan Staten of Texas Tech’s effort in WVU’s eventual overtime win. “They just had a close game with (No. 9, 13-0) Iowa State and took them all the way to the wire, tied the game up after being down 15. So we knew that they weren’t going to give up, even if we got a large lead on them.”
Huggins also pointed out after the Texas Tech win one thing he’s been doing differently late in games recently is going with his more seasoned and experienced players out on the floor.
He said he’s been happy with the growth of his freshmen but has found it easier to draw up offensive and defensive plays late for players who have played within his system for at least one full season.
“I think what we’ve done the last couple times has been with guys that we’ve had for a year,” Huggins said. “Just try to get the freshmen out of the way so that we can do something with those guys.”
Despite the ongoing complacency issues, Huggins said getting out of Texas with two conference road wins in as many nights was extremely satisfying.
“I think any coach in the league would be excited about getting two wins on the road,” Huggins said. “It’s a hard league to win in on the road.”